Trophy Or Cull?

Trophy Or Cull?

Believe it or not, some of the so-called "management" bucks bagged on Texas ranches today would have been considered trophies in seasons past. It's a phenomenon that deserves a closer look.

I sat in the blind with my host and dear friend, keeping watch on a huge expanse of Southwest Texas brush. In front of us was a large clearing containing a big silver deer feeder. To our left 150 yards was a water trough, and 75 yards beyond that was an on-demand protein feeder.

The author was delighted with this ancient buck that he shot in South Texas last season. It sports a tall, massive rack with 8 points — yet it was deemed undesirable by the ranch's owner!
Photo by Steven LaMascus.

Visible in the various openings here and there were 46 deer ranging in age from last spring's fawns to one ancient buck at least 10 years old --painfully skinny, every rib showing, the arthritic gait that emphasized its years causing it to stumble awkwardly when it set a hoof wrong. We thought about shooting the poor creature just to save it from what would probably be its last winter, but we finally decided to leave it in peace.

Then, from the right, came another huge deer. Younger than the sad senior, it walked as if it too might be in considerable pain. Its antlers showed several broken tines and all the hair was rubbed off an area as big as my hand on the left side of its withers. Its front feet were tattered, chipped and broken, the toes pointed up like a pixie's. It went ungainly on its heels, dewclaws digging into the rocky ground. The rut was obviously winding down, and the bucks had been fighting for the last of true love -- or at least true lust -- leaving many of them battered, bruised and injured.

Deer came and went. A buck would come to feed, eat its fill and then wander over to get a drink. Another would show up, stand watching the other deer for many minutes and then vanish back into the surrounding brush.

A fawn of the year tore out on a run, circled the area at high speed, bucking to a stop a few yards from our blind. I guess that youth is in some sense the same in all species, and this exuberant youngster was having fun. I was having fun observing the interplay between the deer when another buck would show up. It was like being at a clinic in white-tailed deer behavior.

Soon I noticed movement beyond the farthest edge of the clearing, where a ranch road snaked its way through the brush. As I watched through my binoculars, a big 10-pointer materialized and moved slowly toward the protein feeder. It would certainly score around 160 B&C. The really amazing thing: It was only 3 1/2 years old!

Twenty-five years ago that deer would've been winning big-buck contests all over the state; today he's deemed "undesirable." That's hard for me to wrapmy mind around.

Then another buck appeared, ambling down the same path. This one too was a very substantial buck, and a year older, but where the first buck's antlers had been wide, this one's were high, with tremendously long tines. On its left side, all the tines were long; on its right, all but the G-2 were broken off short from fighting.

As the bucks noticed each other, the hair of each suddenly bristled, making both look almost black. Their posture immediately changed from relaxed to something seemingly almost belligerent, and they walked slowly toward each other with stiff-legged strides until they were a foot apart. There they stood for a few moments, apparently sizing each other up, before they finally lowered their heads, meshed antlers and half-heartedly pushed each other around for a few seconds. The buck with the broken antlers turned tail and trotted away a few yards, and it was over.

It was getting pretty late when we noticed yet one more buck standing in the edge of the brush -- and this one was big enough to make my heart flutter. Its antlers massive, and tall, it was fully mature, probably at least 7 1/2 years old, and the heaviest buck I'd ever seen; I put it at well over 200 pounds. I was thinking 250, but was afraid that no one would believe me.

After the buck stood there watching for many minutes, it finally decided that everything was OK and started toward the feeder. This time the larger bucks, including the 3 1/2-year-old 10-pointer, didn't fluff up and display. They slunk out of this buck's way, trying not to attract its attention. It was plain to see that this old buck was the Bull of the Woods and the youngsters, no matter how big and tough they acted around their peers, wanted nothing to do with it.

My host looked the buck over with his binoculars, turned to me and whispered, "This one is a shooter. Do you want him?"

I thought he was kidding. This buck was a monster -- a hulk -- a bloody moose -- and I was supposed to be hunting management bucks. But when I looked at him, I could tell that he was serious. Of course I wanted the buck -- and I said so.

I slowly slid my old Remington Model 722 in .300 Savage out the window of the blind and waited for the buck to turn just right; finally, he offered me a shot at his shoulder. I put the cross hairs on the point of his left shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The rifle recoiled, and the buck took off in a frantic run.

It didn't get far. Within 75 yards it stopped, weaved around for a second, and fell over.

When we got to the buck, I couldn't believe how massive his antlers were -- they looked as big around as my not-inconsiderable wrists. When my host and I tried to load him onto the bumper carrier of the Jeep, it was all we could do to wrestle him the mere 2 feet off the ground it required. I had shot some big deer, but nothing like this old beast.

But this deer -- this huge buck -- was a cull! A "management buck"! In modern parlance, he was over 4 1/2 years old and was an 8-pointer. And irrespective of his size, on some ranches that makes him undesirable.

Twenty-five years ago that deer would have been winning big-buck contests all over the state; today he's deemed "undesirable." That's hard for me to wrap my mind around. How can such a monster be considered a cull?

It didn't matter to me, and it still doesn't: As far as I'm concerned, that buck's the trophy of a lifetime.

Later in the same season I was again hunting on a great whitetail ranch, this time the famous Duval County Ranch near Freer. I was a guest of Trijicon, respected manufacturer of night sights for law enforcement and the ACOG scope for t

he military, which was introducing some new sports scopes to the several writers who were there to try out the hardware. Once again, it was a management hunt -- meaning that no real "trophy" deer were to be shot.

The first evening, I found out what that term means on the DCR. My guide Adam and I sat in a blind surrounded by brush so thick it looked like solid-green steel. The weather was too hot, and we'd gotten to the blind too late, so we really didn't expect to get much action.

Our low expectations were fully met -- until almost sundown. We'd given up on seeing anything except does and fawns when, suddenly, the parade began. In the last hour of the day, the bucks came in droves. The only problem was they were all too young, or too bloody big. One 5 1/2-year-old sporting double drop tines made my mouth water. Several young bucks would have scored in the mid-150s. What we were looking for, however, was a buck at least 4 1/2 years of age and wearing a rack with not more than 8 points that would score not more than 145.

We hunted for two more days without seeing anything that fit that description. I saw more trophy bucks on that ranch than almost anywhere I'd ever been. I could have killed a dozen bucks that would score over 150. But not one did I see that was mature, with 8 points, and that would score less than 145. I was wandering in an ocean of diamonds with a permit for a rhinestone -- and it was killing me!

It was almost dark on the third day when my buck arrived. I guess saying "it appeared" would be a better description: One moment there was nothing; the next, a nice buck was standing at the edge of the brush, staring in the direction of the feeder.

The guide and I immediately grabbed binoculars. After careful study, Adam decided that the buck fit within the definition of a management buck, but he seemed worried that it might score more than the maximum 145 inches. Finally he gave me the go-ahead, and I put a 130-grain Speer .270 bullet through the buck's shoulders, dropping it on the spot.

Under his breath I heard Adam mutter, "I sure hope it doesn't score over 145." All I could say was, "Well -- it's too late now."

Once again I was happy with my so-called "management" buck. To me, it was a trophy: 8 long tines and scoring under 145 (it didn't miss it by all that much). Again, a buck that folks would have been fighting over just a few years ago. Now? Just another management buck.

In the last few decades, the concept of deer management has changed drastically. In Texas, we've gone from believing that does were sacred and sacrosanct, that spikes grow up to be big bucks, and that you only shoot bucks with more than 8 points, to the present, when we cull a tremendous number of does, shoot all the spikes and 8-pointers, and leave most of the deer with more than 8 points to breed.

This huge paradigm shift has resulted in a healthier deer herd and a tremendous increase in both the average size and the average age of the trophy bucks we shoot. The deer mentioned here, which would have been considered top-grade trophies just a few years ago, are now culls, their genes regarded as not good enough to pass on.

Ten years ago, I was working on an article about deer hunting in the Edwards Plateau. In the process of gathering information, I called one of the biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Part of what he told me was that the average age of a buck shot in the Hill Country was 1 1/2 years. The bucks in that area were being shot as soon as they developed antlers of sufficient size to be visible from 100 yards or so.

The biologist also told me that, for the most part, deer genes in the Hill Country were just as good as those in the famed Brush Country farther south. The major differences were that the Hill Country had too many deer and too many other competing animals such as sheep and goats; further, the buck-to-doe ratio was totally out of balance, and as the males were killed well before full maturity, they accordingly didn't live long enough to get nutrition sufficient to allow them to express their full genetic potential.

I suppose this is still true in some places, but the vast majority of landowners have seen the light. Even those with very small plots of land are attempting to implement game management practices intended to increase the quality of their deer, so it's nowadays a rarity to find someone in Texas who doesn't believe that spikes (true spikes at least 1 1/2 years old, not nubbin bucks) should be culled because they're genetically inferior, and that does need to be shot in order to keep the deer herd's sex ratio in balance. Such practices explain the notable uptick in trophy bucks taken in areas formerly known for large quantities of poor-quality deer. We still have a long way to go, but giant steps in the right direction are being taken.

For 25 years my family hunted a 6,000-acre ranch near Uvalde. No deer blinds or feeders were to be found on the place. The owners, old-time ranchers, didn't shoot does, and believed that spikes grew up to become Bullwinkle. Their only attempt at management was an 8-point rule, mostly ignored.

For years either my brother David or I would shoot the largest deer taken on that ranch each season. I just finished comparing some of those bucks to the management deer that I've shot in the last couple of seasons. The difference? Astounding. The animals that I was so proud of 25 years ago now look rather scrawny. The management bucks of the better ranches are now much larger than the trophy bucks I shot a couple of decades ago. The reason: improved deer management techniques.

That same ranch was sold, and all my old rancher friends have passed on to greener pastures. The ranch is now ringed by a high fence and is strenuously managed for top-quality deer. Under the new management system, the same sort of deer that I was so proud of all those years ago is being culled.

In the last 30 years, we -- meaning the deer hunting community in general -- have learned a great deal about the genetics of deer and about managing our land for fostering larger specimens. On most ranches, the object is to raise bucks with large antlers. Such an objective doesn't necessarily lead to more deer roaming the place; in fact, it's usually quite the opposite.

Deer and livestock must be kept at a level not destructive to the forage base, so the deer can obtain adequate nutrition. The ideal number of animals will vary in each part of the state. In the Hill Country, part norms saw landowners raise sheep and goats and let the deer take care of themselves; now, with deer hunting becoming such a cash machine, ranchers are willing to keep fewer sheep so that they can produce better deer -- and get more money for leases.

Also: As mentioned, such outdated management practices as the 8-point rule are now known to be ineffective. Almost any buck in its second year can grow a rack with 8 points or more, and in its third year may have a large 10-point rack. If that deer's shot at 3 1/2 years, it won't have fulfilled its potential, nor have passed its genes on to many sons and daughters.

Therefore, we must learn to age deer on the hoof and shoot only those deer that are fully mature, preferably those over 6 1/2, and certainly over 4 1/2, the age at which the 8-point rule becomes effective. But rather than kill only bucks carrying racks with 8 points or more, we today shoot mature bucks carrying racks with 8 points or less. Which would appear to demonstrate how backward we were a few years ago.

The moral here is that what many of us considered a trophy rack a couple of decades ago is now a rather mediocre head, and what we thought was good deer management actually was counterproductive. I still love the deer I shot, and their antlers, mounted on my wall, still bring back special memories of a simpler time. But since those golden days of yesteryear, deer hunting in Texas has matured and grown, transforming from quaint fall ritual into full-fledged mania.

Today, right now, in Texas, we are experiencing "the good old days." Deer hunting has never been as good as it is -- but I don't think that this happy state of affairs can last forever. So don't miss it!

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